Attorney Joel White, former FOI Foundation president, remembered as strong advocate for press freedom, open government

First Amendment attorney Joel White, a former president of the FOI Foundation of Texas and longtime champion of open government, has passed away.

White died July 21 in Cartagena, Colombia. He became ill during a trip, having suffered a perforated diverticulitis and septic shock, according to friends and his wife, Melinda Rainey.

In his law practice in Austin, White represented news media clients in many types of cases including court access, open records, subpoenas and libel. He also represented clients in finance, energy, construction and manufacturing. He was board certified in civil appellate law and was named one of the best lawyers in America in both First Amendment and business litigation by Best Lawyers in America and U.S. News and World Report. He was named a “Texas Super Lawyer” by Texas Monthly.

He was a 1987 honors graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, where he served on the Texas Law Review. He practiced in all Texas state and federal courts and was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar.

White was a board member and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, where he played a key role overseeing the non-profit’s structure and funding. He was a guiding hand of the FOI Foundation for nearly two decades. For many years he volunteered as an FOI Hotline attorney for the organization, answering questions from journalists and interested citizens about the Texas Public Information Act, Texas Open Meetings Act and other freedom of information issues.

“There has never been a more decent, genuine, excellent human being, and no greater advocate for the press and open government, than Joel White. He will be deeply missed,” said First Amendment and open government attorney Joseph Larsen, a board member of the FOI Foundation of Texas.

Attorney Paul Watler, a fellow FOIFT board member and past president, said he will remember White “not only as an excellent lawyer, but as a fun, kind and loyal friend.” 

“Joel White was an outstanding lawyer and a great leader of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He had a low-key demeanor that belied his tenacity in the courtroom and as an advocate of open government,” Watler said.

First Amendment attorney Laura Prather, also an FOIFT board member and past president, said: “Some people in this world quietly make a big difference. Joel White was one of those people – with a steady hand and a calm demeanor, Joel made Texas a more transparent place. Joel donated his time and energy to educating and advocating for Texans to be able to keep a watchful eye on what their leaders are doing. With Joel’s passing, the citizens of Texas have lost a significant champion of open government.”

White was involved in important open government and press freedom legal cases in Texas. He frequently appeared in court for newspaper and broadcast clients, including the Houston Chronicle and KHOU-TV. In 1995, he fought to protect the right of journalists and other members of the public to attend jury selection in criminal trials. In the late 1990s, he handled a series of cases for the Chronicle that firmly established the right of public access to search warrant affidavits. In 2005, he was a key member of a team of lawyers that won a notable decision by the Texas Supreme Court protecting the right of investigative journalists to expose questionable conduct of elected public officials.

White conducted open government training for the FOI Foundation in cooperation with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. He repeatedly took on pro bono assignments for the foundation to author friend-of-the-court briefs in cases involving the Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, Sept. 16, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Camp Lucy, 3509 Creek Road, in Dripping Springs, Texas. The family asks that in lieu of flowers that charitable donations be made to the FOI Foundation of Texas or the National Freedom of Information Coalition.